Changing Explanations in Mind-Body Medicine

Grade Levels

Colleges and Universities

Academic Topics

  • History of Medicine
  • Intellectual and Cultural History
  • History of Philosophy
  • Medicine in Literature


The Changing Explanations in Mind-Body Medicine class resource, developed by Theodore M. Brown, PhD, provides teachers and students with the opportunity to discuss the implications of the exhibition “And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors for our understanding of how practicing physicians and medical scientists have, over a considerable period of time, typically explained disease and the factors which cause it. Looking selectively at Western medicine over its long history and in the most basic terms, it focuses on the recurrent ways in which biological (body-based) and psychological (mind- or emotion-based) explanations have been used to account for diseases of both the body and mind, and it challenges the common assumption that biological explanations are always better.

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The class resource focuses on the following three periods with six lessons:

Greek antiquity through the Medieval period (ca. 450 BCE to ca. 1450) provides information about the medical knowledge and key ideas that Shakespeare and his contemporaries inherited from classical and medieval authorities in lessons 1 and 2.

The Early Modern period (ca. 1450 to ca. 1650) explores the ideas about mind and body among medical authorities just prior to Shakespeare and during his time in lessons 3 and 4.

The Modern Era (ca. 1650 to the present) focuses on Rene Descartes’s ideas on mind-body dualism and broad themes in the development of modern medicine in lessons 5 and 6.

Each lesson includes an introduction, suggested primary and secondary source readings, and a set of discussion questions.



  1. Lesson 1: Hippocratic Foundations

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    Students examine the biologically-focused foundational concepts and explanatory strategies of Western medicine first inscribed in the works of Hippocrates. Close

  2. Lesson 2: Late Ancient and Medieval Medical Views of Mind and Body

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    Students explore Hippocrates’ principal successor Galen among the late ancient medical writers, Galen’s departures from Hippocrates’ ideas on mind and body, and Avicenna's and Maimonides’ continuation of Galen’s approach among the medieval writers. Close

  3. Lesson 3: Mind and Body in Renaissance and Early Modern Medicine

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    Students look at the framework of medical belief and practice in the late 15th, 16th, and early 17th centuries and focuses on the persistence of older ways of thinking about the mind-body relationship despite certain new developments in medical science. Students also examine early modern court records for the contemporary lay perspective on “insanity.” Close

  4. Lesson 4: Mind and Body in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries

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    Students examine Shakespeare’s own ideas and compares them to those of his contemporaries, again focusing on the mind-body theme. Although there was great general continuity between ancient, medieval, and early modern ideas on both basic human biology and strategies for explaining disease symptoms, different authors sometimes chose to emphasize the mind or the body to different degrees. Close

  5. Lesson 5: Descartes and Aftermath

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    Students closely study Rene Descartes’s innovative philosophical ideas on mind-body dualism as a challenge to the beliefs about human behavior and disease causation commonly accepted in classical, medieval, and early modern medicine. Students also look at the impact of Descartes’s ideas on medicine in the late 17th and 18th century and beyond. Close

  6. Lesson 6: The Modern Era

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    Students explore broad themes in the development of modern medicine from ca. 1800 to the present and concentrates on the general triumph of biological approaches to both physical and mental diseases in that period. The development of modern biologically-based psychiatric therapy for mood and behavioral disorders and mental illness underscores a parallel between ideas in our own time and many of the ideas in Shakespeare’s. This lesson also includes a list of topics and resources for students to take on research papers, small group presentations, or classroom debates. Close

  7. About the Author

Learning Outcomes

After completing this class resource, students are able to:

  • Understand how early the mind-body theme appeared in Western thought and how persistently it has continued in medicine.
  • Appreciate that emphasis on the mind- or emotion-based, that is, psychological dimensions of medicine has waxed and waned over time but has never fully vanished.
  • Learn about circumstances in medical history that help determine whether the psychological aspects are either central or marginal to medical thought and practice at any given time.
  • Describe how the persistent quest for scientific legitimacy, the jumping on intellectual bandwagons, and the recurrent tensions between theoretical understanding and practical clinical experience have all affected awareness of mind-body relationships in medicine.

Identify the ways in which the long-standing issues about mind-body interactions remain despite the advances of modern science.